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Pitiless Fate: The Dresden Mutiny, 1917


By Chris Oakley


Part 4


based on the series "A Chacun Son Boche" by the same author




Summary: In the previous chapters of this series we remembered the outbreak of the famous Dresden garrison mutiny of December 1917; German chancellor Georg Michaelis’ reluctant decision to dispatch troops to end the rebellion; the mutiny’s bloody climax; and the postwar German government’s investigation into the high number of civilian deaths incurred in the firefight between the mutineers and the forces of the Michaelis administration. In this segment, we’ll examine how the far left and the far right in postwar Germany used used the Dresden mutiny as a propaganda tool in their respective quests for power and look at how the mutiny was portrayed in movies and literature prior to the Second World War.




In the political and social chaos which enveloped Germany after the Great Depression, extremists of both the left and the right were hunting for scapegoats on who they could put the blame for the chronic unemployment and hyperinflation that were poisoning Germany’s national psyche like radioactive fallout. The far left asserted that capitalist warmongers were responsible for the dire mess the German people found themselves in; the far right blamed everything on socialist agitators, Communist revolutionary plotters, foreign speculators-- and that old favorite European scapegoat for all kinds of internal difficulty, the Jews.

Both factions used a common technique in their propaganda: they cited the men of the Dresden garrison as tragic victims of the follies of the powers that had once been. Much as the late Rosa Luxembourg had once used infantry officer Karl Johannes Peritzky as a symbol of those sacrificed to Kaiser Wilhelm’s bloodlust,1 the German Communist Party invoked the Dresden mutineers as a sign that Germany was in desperate need of a Marxist revolution to save it from perdition. One Communist volunteer militia even named itself the Witzleber Brigade after the sergeant who had led the mutiny; the Berlin branch of the party had a portrait of Witzleber on display at its headquarters.

German far right factions spoke of the mutineers as men who’d been driven to desperate measures by the weakness and corruption of the Michaelis government. Adolf Hitler, in one of his first speeches as head of the Nazi Party, invoked Witzleber’s name no less than two dozen times; Hitler’s propaganda director, Joseph Goebbels, called the sergeant "the first true National Socialist"2. As the Nazis’ strength grew and they became a truly national political party, their quest to link the Dresden mutineers to party mythology about German history accelerated. Heinrich Himmler, founder and chief of the SS, went so far as to order his counterintelligence department to doctor up false papers allegedly showing that the mutineers fully shared the bigoted and fascistic views of the Nazis. Even Luftwaffe commander-in-chief Hermann Goering got into the act and named one of his fighter units Geschwader Witzleber("Witzleber Squadron").

The outbreak of the Second World War in 1938 threw a monkey wrench into the Hitler propaganda machine’s efforts to recast the Dresden mutineers as proto-Nazis. The Anglo-French alliance, seeking to turn the German masses against the Nazis, embarked on their own propaganda campaign vis-à-vis the Dresden mutineers, seeking to paint Witzleber and his comrades as men who would have despised the Nazis on sight. Winston Churchill, who’d replaced Neville Chamberlain as prime minister of Britain after Chamberlain was voted out of office,3 was the chief architect of this propaganda offensive; his goal was to undercut German popular support for the Hitler regime by reminding people on the home front of the mutineers’ distaste for the kind of far right ideology the Nazis espoused. At first this tactic produced little in the way of practical results, but as the war progressed and the Nazis’ fortunes grew steadily worse Churchill’s ploy gradually found a more receptive audience.

By the spring of 1940, when the so-called "Thousand-Year Reich" was on its last legs and the Anglo-French alliance was driving towards Berlin, Goebbels’ efforts to sell the German public on the myth of Witzleber as a model National Socialist were falling on increasingly deaf ears. The masses wanted no more part of the little doctor’s fairy tales of Sergeant Witzleber the first Nazi; in fact, some of the more daring spirits in their ranks openly mocked the propaganda minister’s grandiloquent speeches on the subject. Gestapo jail cells were soon crammed to the walls with civilians detained for having made what the Nazis considered "disparaging" comments about Goebbels’ speeches on the topic of Heinrich Witzleber; at least one Berliner met his death at the hands of an SS firing squad merely for making the casual remark that Goebbels spent too much time talking about Witzleber.

Goebbels’ last speech on the Dresden mutiny came just before the Allied liberation of Vienna, when in a radio broadcast interrupted several times by British bombing he asserted that the German masses should use Witzleber as an inspiration for future acts of resistance against the Allied army then on the verge of occupying the Reich. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t very well received.




In the ninety-plus years since the Dresden mutiny rocked Germany’s social and political foundations, the events of those terrifying three days have proven fertile soil for the imaginations of authors and film directors, and not just in Germany either. The first literary account of the mutiny, in fact, was written in January of 1918 by British science fiction icon H.G. Wells; in his short story Dresden Holocaust, Wells imagined the mutiny escalating into a mini-civil war that eventually left all of Dresden in ruins. Some literary critics today regard Dresden Holocaust as one of the first bona fide alternate history stories of 20th century SF; others tend to view it as more of a traditional cautionary tale about the consequences of hate and violence. But regardless of which idea they subscribe to, the critics are unanimous in their consensus that Holocaust was one of the most distinguished works of Wells’ literary career.

Just over three years after Dresden Holocaust was published, German filmmaking legend Fritz Lang gave the world its first cinematic take on the Dresden mutiny. Titled Die Verrater("The Traitor"), it was a cautionary tale of betrayal in which an ordinary solider stationed at the Dresden garrison initially sided with the mutineers only to switch sides and sell his comrades out to the government in exchange for help with settling some gambling debts. The soldier, in turn, was himself betrayed by his government handlers and fell into a spiral of despair, madness, and ultimately suicide.4

The first feature film made outside of Germany to have the Dresden mutiny as a topic was the 1927 French comedy Le Policier de Dresde(The Dresden Policeman), which told the story of a shy local police sergeant trying to court a barmaid while at the same time being caught up in the Berlin government’s efforts to bring the mutiny to an end. Although it was poorly received by French audiences during its initial domestic theatrical run, it played to rave reviews in Britain, the United States, and Germany; eventually Le Policier would be recognized as a French cinema classic.

In 1929 Sergei Eisenstein, a committed Russian socialist who’d first made his mark on the cinema world four years earlier with the drama Battleship Potemkin, put his own spin on the Dresden mutiny with the gritty movie Requiem For A Soldier, which portrayed the uprising as an example of the purported class struggle between the wealthy few and the impoverished masses. It was a controversial film-- and also a highly successful one. It did so well at the box office that nearly every major movie company in Russia, and quite a few outside Russia to boot, offered Eisenstein hefty contracts for his services; he turned them all down in order to remain true to his leftist creed. When the Communist Party finally came into power in Russia in the early 1930s, Joseph Stalin personally appointed him to the chairmanship of Goskino, the Communists’ official state-run film studio.

The first serious Nazi cinematic propaganda treatment of the Dresden mutiny came in 1934 when Joseph Goebbels commissioned the UFA studios to produce a two-hour epic touting the mutineers as heroic forefathers of the Third Reich. The movie, titled Ehre Und Blut("Honor And Blood"), was at best laughably inaccurate and at worst a sickening distortion of the reality of the mutiny and its aftermath; nonetheless Goebbels hailed it as "the greatest motion picture in German history"5 and had a special print of Ehre made for his personal film library.6 Two years later, the Propaganda Ministry followed up Ehre with an even more inept biopic about Heinrich Witzleber titled Die Feldwebel Von Dresden("The Sergeant From Dresden"), a movie that blatantly and quite clumsily attempted to portray the leader of the Dresden mutiny as a kindred spirit to Hitler. The prevailing attitude toward Feldwebel of just about every moviegoer outside of Germany-- and, secretly, a lot of moviegoers inside Germany --was best summed up by an observation American journalist William L. Shirer made in his diary ten days after the movie’s premiere: "To call this movie merely ‘bad’ barely touches the surface of its faults. It is amateurishly shot, dismally written, intellectually and artistically dishonest, and last but not least a mind-shriveling bore."7

Shirer was fortunate Goebbels never saw his diary; the Nazi propaganda chief was notorious for reacting with screaming outrage to even the mildest criticism of Feldwebel. When Heinrich Himmler casually said one time that he found the movie’s soundtrack "a bit grating", Goebbels had to be physically restrained from throttling the SS commander-in-chief. A Himmler deputy, Sicherheitsdienst8 head Reinhard Heydrich, would later recall staring at Goebbels in absolute shock after the incident.




In 1937, American poet Stephen Vincent Benet published what may have been the finest English-language literary work of the pre-World War II era about the Dresden mutiny. Titled simply "Soldier", it was a five-part epic saga in verse that described in crisp, eye-catching lines the terror and chaos gripping Dresden during the three days of the uprising. The poem was also notable for being one of those rare literary pieces that managed to humanize both the mutineers and the government troops opposing them; President Franklin Roosevelt, upon hearing it recited for the first time at a White House state dinner, pronounced it "perhaps the greatest poetic work this country  has yet produced in my lifetime".9

Another well-known admirer of "Soldier" was former British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, who before being voted out of office in the wake of the 1938 Nazi occupation of Austria had enjoyed quoting passages of the poem to his colleagues at Whitehall anytime the chance arose. On the day he officially stepped down as PM, he had his framed copy of the poem carefully packed for shipment to his country estate; when he died in 1940, that copy was placed beside him in his casket. Churchill was rather fond of the poem himself, calling it "a splendid portrait of the desolation of war".

The last major fictional portrayal of the mutiny to come out before the Second World War began in the fall of 1938 was the Thomas Mann novel My Kingdom For A Horse, a searing condemnation of the Prussian militarist ideology that had led to the tragic events in Dresden and the long bloody war preceding them. Mann, who like many other distinguished German cultural figures had gone into exile after the Nazis took over Germany, first published his book in the United States and Britain; it was a source of great frustration and heartache to him that his own countrymen could not read it. John Ford, one of America’s top film directors at that time, contacted Mann in August of 1938 and inquired if he would be interested in selling Ford the movie rights to Kingdom.

It would be years before Kingdom made it to the silver screen...


To Be Continued



[1] Karl Johannes Peritzky was an Imperial German Army infantry captain who was arrested and executed in November of 1917 on charges of treason after an anonymous informant leaked Peritzky’s intention to march on Berlin in protest of Kaiser Wilhelm’s conduct of the First World War. For further details, see Part 2 of “A Chacun Son Boche”.

[2] This would have struck Witzleber as ironic-- and somewhat insulting --given that the Nazis espoused precisely the kind of ultra-rightist ideology he detested.

[3] Chamberlain had been British prime minister when the Nazis occupied Austria six months before the Second World War began; Chamberlain’s mishandling of that crisis is widely regarded as the chief cause of his political downfall.

[4] Lang was well-known for his sympathetic views towards Sgt. Witzleber and the Dresden mutineers; Lang’s choice of title and storyline were intended as a condemnation of the Prussian officer elite whose harsh treatment of the Imperial Army’s enlisted men had provoked the mutiny to begin with. After he fled to America when the Nazis took over Germany , Lang remade Die Verrater in 1937 under the title of Turncoat; the remake would garner him his first English-language film Oscar nomination.

[5] From Goebbels’ personal diary entry of September 18th, 1934 .

[6] Rumor has it Goebbels watched repeated screenings of the movie on the night before his suicide.

[7] Quoted from Shirer’s book Berlin Diary(copyright 1941 by A.A. Knopf).

[8] The SS counterintelligence service during the Nazi era in Germany .

[9] “FDR Lauds New Benet Poem About Dresden Mutiny”, Washington Post, August 11th, 1937 .


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